Botanist and MCCC Alumna Gemma Milly Lives among the Trees

Story by Brandon Johnson

Ewing, N.J. – There are exactly two pictures on Google Images of Mercer County Community College (MCCC) alumna Gemma Milly. In both headshots the photos’ similarities are uncanny. Milly poses before a bokeh’ed background of green and brown flora.

In both pictures, Milly is in her element.

A New Jersey native, Milly grew up in the Hopewell Valley, about 12.5 miles northwest of MCCC’s West Windsor Campus. She spent her childhood in those same backdrops featured in her headshots – the great outdoors.

“Growing up, my home was a conflict-ridden environment, and I spent a lot of time outside, resting under trees and playing with plants because it was quiet there and safe,” Milly said.

Milly empathizes with wild plants. “The dysfunction caused by human activities in natural ecosystems has led to severe hardships for vulnerable species,” she said. 

Milly added that her passion for botanical work comes from wanting to positively affect the species she sees suffering.

“Rare plant populations can often hang on for decades surrounded by environmental degradation, just waiting for conditions to improve. It's our responsibility to do everything we can to reverse the damage and help them out,” Milly said.

“In the field of conservation, plants are overlooked. Pandas, leopards, and rhinos get their due support, but you almost never hear about globally endangered plants like the New Jersey Dewberry (only one population has ever been observed, and it's in NJ),” she added.  

Currently, Milly works as a Land Steward with the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS) and runs her own botanical consulting business, a pair of roles she loves and can talk about at length.

But the path to the job she cherishes wasn’t always clear.

“After I graduated from high school, I went to college in Montreal,” Milly recollected. “I was in a cognitive neuroscience program – still science, but a completely different field from what I ended up doing.

“My first year in school in Montreal ended with some large disruptions in my life,” Milly added. “The following year was really a period of personal confusion and conflict for me, which ended with me beginning to assess what I wanted as an adult and what feels good in life.”

The year off would eventually lead to Mercer, but the interim was a period of exploration. Her apartment became something of a greenhouse, a verdant garden of plants Milly collected and raised herself.  

“I love collecting seeds and watching them germinate,” she raved. “Each plant needs different methods of seed collection from the fruit. One plant – the Maple-leaf Viburnum – needed a period of cold for the seeds to germinate. So, I put the seed in a bag of soil in my refrigerator for three months to simulate winter. My house was overflowing with plants.”

The personal project led into Milly’s enrollment at MCCC in the Plant Science program.

“I honestly don’t even remember how I heard about Mercer,” Milly attested, though she knew Mercer was lurking in the background of her Hopewell Valley roots. “But I knew I wanted the flexibility of attending Mercer, and the school was close by.”

She noted that of MCCC’s two botanically geared programs, Plant Science was her fit.

“Horticulture is more ornamental while Plant Science has a lot of students that continue to work in agricultural sciences,” Milly clarified.  

Though she specialized in Plant Science, Milly recalls loving other classes as well. Photography was among her favorites, as was public speaking.

“I’ve always been into photography,” Milly said. “Actually, I just lost a camera, so I’ve been toting around my film camera. But I use photography all the time, both at work and in my art.”

“As for public speaking, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did,” she continued. “But Professor Alvin Haywood was so genuine and warm and a really compassionate person that the course grew on me.”

After completing English I, Milly continued to take English II, which proved a hindrance to completing her degree.

“I actually had a lot of trouble with writing essays for school – it was a mental block,” Milly said. “I could write about other things but doing work for English classes was very difficult.”

Milly recalled going as far as clearing her schedule of every class, save for English II.

“That semester I didn’t do anything except for things that would help me pass English II,” Milly said. “Professor Carol Bork was so consistently encouraging. Even when I realized I wasn’t going to pass, she helped me withdraw so I wouldn’t end up with a failing grade.”

Though she never passed English II, and thus never officially graduated, Milly’s scholastic goals went unimpeded. It turned out her transfer school, Rutgers University, didn’t require English II at all.

“It would have been nice to graduate, but I can say for sure that I loved my time at Mercer,” Milly professed. “Everyone really wanted to be there. The professors and students were passionate about their paths and career trajectories. The education was very practical and technical, and the faculty helped us apply what we learned to our goals.”

At Rutgers, Milly enrolled in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences’ Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources. The shift was something of a culture shock. Older than many of her classmates, Milly was separated from her peers, many of whom lacked the work experience that she had.

“Most people at Rutgers weren’t already working in the field in which they were studying,” Milly said. “It was a very academically oriented place.”

While at Rutgers Milly found herself replying to an email forward from a staffer in the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Natural Heritage Program (NHP), in response to an Ecology and Botany Field Assistant job opening.

After a lengthy phone interview and a field test of her plant identification skills, Milly was hired on the spot.

“This work was formative for me,” Milly said. “There were long, hot days filled with mosquitoes in the summer, but it taught me how to look at different species. You can’t ignore any species, no matter how much you might not want to work with them.”

Plots the size of a half hectare – or about the size of the average Starbucks store – became Milly’s domain. She’d trek through wetland ecosystems, logging each plant species, packing up samples of unknown flora for future identification.

“At NHP I could survey however I wanted,” Milly said. “Usually that meant starting in the center of the plot and working outwards. For example, I’d start with logging red maple in the wetlands. Then, I’d continue to other trees, then shrubs, vines, grasses, and ferns. It’d take between four to eight hours to do a single plot.”

The NHP also provided Milly a sense of autonomy that she’d use, if at first unknowingly, to fuel her future endeavors.

In 2015, while at the NHP, Milly began a temporary position as a Land Steward with FoHVOS. The work was similar to her previous employment surveying lands, albeit with a notable caveat: Milly started developing study methods.

“Compared to my work at NHP, I became the person who designed the methods of survey as well as executing them,” Milly recounted. “For instance, I’d monitor Green Violet. I’d go to plots and count stems and characterize the damage of deer browse, which prohibit Green Violet from reproducing.”

Her hard work paid off. Milly and FOHVOS’s study of Green Violet, which ranks among the rarest plant species in the state (S1 for taxonomic identification), earned the organization a grant to install fencing.

“Now there is zero deer browse and subsequently more Green Violet fruits,” she said. “The plants are able to meaningfully reproduce.”

If Milly seems busy, it’s because she is. Her temporary position became permanent in 2019, testifying to her FoHVOS colleagues’ investment in her interests and abilities. They valued her expertise, leading her to collaborate with workmates on projects beyond the purview of her main responsibilities, while laying the foundation for her own business as a Botanical-Ecological Consultant.

Appropriately called Milly Botany, Milly’s services include floristic inventory, community assessment and rare plant surveys. She’s worked with Pennsylvania Soil & Rock, the Watchung Reservation, Wild Ridge Plants and other organizations to draft and implement strategic plans for property restoration and rare species maintenance.

“I hadn’t really thought about consulting,” Milly admitted, adding that she’s aiming for another big contract in 2020. “Consulting is something some people do, but there isn’t a lot of demand for my niche. NJ can be a tough place to do this job.”

Citing lack of public awareness as an inhibitor in her line of work, Milly became directly involved with teaching one of Mercer’s students to follow in her footsteps. As part of MCCC’s honors biology and chemistry program, Milly directed her first intern, Jason Ricciardi, during the spring and summer of 2019.

The internship emerged from a relationship between MCCC and Mercer County Parks Commission Stewardship Director Jenn Rogers.

“Often times I’ve been assisted by volunteers or colleagues, but this was the first time I had someone directly under my own supervision,” Milly said.

After overcoming the learning curve, the pair embarked down Milly’s pre-established rare plant rabbit hole.

“Wild Comfrey was one of FoHVOS’s rare plants, an S2,” Milly explained. “It was Imperiled, meaning it was a slightly lower priority for us. We just had not had time to survey for it.”

Ricciardi filled that void, searching for and logging Comfrey populations that lie on steep rows of south facing bedrock.

“Jason was really good at surveying and I enlisted his help for other projects, including my work with Green Violet and three other rare species,” Milly said. “Jason also helped with the stewardship project by installing tree tubes.”

Milly added, “We hauled 50 pieces of five foot rebar and 50 tubes to secure tree seedlings,” recalling the physicality of her job.

Though Milly relished the opportunity to supervise an internship program, she’s hesitant to dive fully into the world of instructing.

“I do like teaching, but I think it’d take away from making a direct difference,” Milly said. “I really enjoy being in the field.”

Teaching or not, Milly predicts NJ will remain her home for the foreseeable future.

“While I’ve considered moving to other areas to find a full-time job, I’m finding myself increasingly invested in building my business in NJ,” she said.

I feel that the forests of central New Jersey helped raise me as a young adult. I feel grateful for that, and I feel compelled to repay the care they have given me." 

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gemma milly

Gemma Milly works off of a rock outcrop. 

american ginsing

American Ginsing (photographed by Gemma Milly).

Virginia Pennywort

Milly cited American Ginsing and Virginia Pennywort (pictured above, photographed by Milly) among her favorite plants. Both are designated by the NJ DEP as species of special concern.

winter grass

Winter Grass (Illustrated by Milly)

hairy cup grass

Hairy Cup Grass (photographed by Milly), an invasive Eurasian species in Somerset County.

green violet

Fencing around Green Violet (photographed by Milly) populations has been successful in assisting seed production.